Under Howard, Wolverines have 'a lot of room to grow' on defense

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan forward Colin Castleton battles for a rebound during Tuesday’s victory over Creighton.

Ann Arbor — The past two seasons, Michigan made its mark by making life miserable for opposing offenses.

While some faces on the roster have changed and there’s a new head at the helm, the Wolverines’ calling card is still going to come on defense — even though it might take some time for it to find its form.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of room to grow (on defense),” sophomore guard David DeJulius said Thursday. “Just to see how good we’re playing right now, how family-oriented it is, how unselfish we are and to see how much we can grow, we feel really good about that.”

Michigan ranked in the top eight nationally in both scoring defense and adjusted defensive efficiency each of the past two years under former coach John Beilein and former assistant and defensive guru Luke Yaklich.

With Beilein and Yaklich both gone, coach Juwan Howard — who served as the defensive coordinator during his time with the Miami Heat — said his defensive philosophy and principles are “somewhat similar” to what was already in place.

The difference is the additions Howard has made to defend certain aspects, like ball screens and catch-and-shoot players.

That was evident in Tuesday’s win over Creighton when Michigan used a drop coverage against ball screens. In that type of coverage, the guard goes over the top of the screen and is responsible for contesting the shot while the big drops back to contain the ball handler with a focus on protecting the rim.

The goal is to force the opponent to take tough pull-up jumpers, which the Wolverines did and the Bluejays struggled to knock down in the second half.

Junior forward Isaiah Livers said the drop coverage is something Yaklich talked about and the team practiced before “but we never got around it.” Over the past two seasons, the Wolverines would typically use a hard hedge to defend ball screens.

Yet, Howard said based on Creighton’s offense and its style of play, he felt that defensive coverage was “one we wanted to explore.”

“We have different packages,” Howard said. “We all have to get uncomfortable trying new things.

"Fortunately, the players are smart enough to pick it right up through practice, more and more reps. They trust and so do I — we trust that as far as what we have in place will give us the best chance to win.”

Livers said adjusting to a new ball screen coverage isn’t as difficult as getting used to the new terminology, and it only adds to team’s defensive playbook.

“He (Howard) is always going to have a wide range. He’s always going to have something in his back pocket,” Livers said. “I think he has a lot more ball screen coverages that we haven’t even went over yet, so it’s going to be pretty exciting.”

Livers added the team’s focus heading into Friday’s matchup against Elon is “getting back in the swing of things” on the defensive end.

Through two games, the Wolverines are allowing opponents to average 70 points on 43.8 percent shooting from the field. Over 37 games last year, opponents reached 70 points only five times and were held below 40 percent shooting for the season.

Michigan also ranks No. 23 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, surrendering 88.5 points per 100 possessions. That's roughly two points higher than a year ago, when Michigan ranked No. 2 in the category.

While the numbers may not be as impressive so far, Livers said there are certain analytical stats Howard — much like Yaklich — uses to gauge each performance, from deflections and steals to paint touches and contest rate.

“There are percentages of each category. Like deflections, I think we want to have at least 17-20 deflections a game,” Livers said. “Little stuff like that (Howard) is really into.

“Contesting is a major one. That is huge for Coach Howard. Even if you get blown by you better be trying to block the shot or at least contest him from shooting the ball. Our contesting numbers have been OK, but they always can be better.”

DeJulius said the key for the defense is to “stay connected,” avoid reverting back to something that was the norm last season and “continue to trust the system” as it takes shape under Howard.

While the defense might not be flexing its muscle quite like it was last season, the Wolverines are confident it’s an area that will continue to grow stronger.

“We feel like we’ve adjusted well, but we also feel like we’ve got a long way to go,” DeJulius said. “We understand that it’s not an overnight process.

“I feel like each and every day we’re growing, and Coach Howard and the rest of the coaching staff is doing a great job of being patient with us.”

Elon at Michigan

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Michigan 2-0, Elon 2-1

Outlook: Elon is tied for No. 15 in the nation in made 3-pointers (31) and tied at No. 14 in 3-point attempts (93). Marcus Sheffield II, a grad transfer wing, leads three players averaging double-digits in scoring with 15.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and five assists per game. … This is the second time Michigan will host Elon in a Battle 4 Atlantis campus matchup. The Wolverines won the first meeting, 88-68, in 2015.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins